Mishal takes a look at the highly praised fight between WALTER and Ilja Dragunov from NXT UK that has everyone talking!
I’ve said it before, roughly 800 times, and I’ll say it again, wrestling in 2020 has been a jarring experience to behold.
Professional wrestling has always over the course of its history been a sport that uses the art of violence within the infamous ”squared circle” to convey story & characters to a live audience sitting at ringside seeing these modern-day gladiators go to war over a championship, personal stake or simply for the sake of ferocious competition. But in 2020, its most vital element was plucked from right underneath it due to a global health pandemic, that being the very fans that spend their hard-earned money to see the best wrestling on the planet whenever it may come into town.
And as a result, a lot has changed within the landscape of the business.
Storylines were sent into flux, wrestlers (such as Roman Reigns) miraculously disappeared from television due to real-life health concerns, venues shut down prompting the biggest annual wrestling show in WrestleMania to be held behind closed doors with no in-person attendance, wrestlers were forced to act under a very different dynamic to tell their stories & what could have been a banner year for professional wrestling simply became iconic for a variety of different reasons. This wasn’t the same landscape we were either used to or promised as the year begun, shifting plans for big matches, returns, as well as numerous other events which essentially sent much of the year’s events into standstill.
In the midst of all this mess, was one particularly highly anticipated match which was lurking below the surface of the return of Edge, The Undertakers ”Final” match, Randy Orton’s rise back to the top, Roman Reigns return or even companies like AEW stealing the show every week on television, that was the highly anticipated clash between NXT’s UK Champion WALTER & Ilja Dragunov.
Neither WALTER nor Dragunov were strangers to each other prior to this established match, in fact the history between the two was far deeper than WWE or NXT fans were aware of. Because WWE tend to only briefly reference their talents past, the emphasis NXT chose to take with their past history was a neat little element that added a lot in retrospect, especially if you’re familiar with it.
The two have engaged in battles across Europe over the years, with their history starting in wXw (Westside Extreme Wrestling) in Germany with various encounters, spilling over into PROGRESS wrestling in the United Kingdom in a match that would become a standard bearer & finally, arriving on their largest stage in NXT almost half a decade after it had begun to rekindle what they started. To those interested in looking into their history of this incredible feud, Ian Hamiltion over at 411mania has a neat little recap piece that should fill you in on what these two have been through since the beginning.
Originally slated to be held earlier in the year, likely at a TakeOver special most likely, the two faced a setback once COVID-19 set in government travel restrictions, production issues as NXT UK came to a grinding halt with the UK not allowing sports to function as normal & any storylines on the show put on hold for the time being until the situation was resolved. Upon the brands return, all eyes were set on the two former rivals to clash on the biggest stage with all eyes on them, as the world anticipated what degree of pain the two could inflict on each other. Both are known for their leans on ”Strong Style” wrestling, as their chops, kicks & punches could practically be felt through their television screen, which made this content all the more compelling.
As for the match, it was only aided with 7 months of anticipation building behind it due to cancellations which made this feel like something fans simply had to behold, and they weren’t wrong, in fact what they got was something truly special. Unlike anything seen under the WWE banner.
Despite the criticism that the pandemic era of professional wrestling has received since it began, this is one of those few times that if anything the strange atmosphere it created actually benefited the story we were being presented. That deafening silence of an empty arena takes away from the aura of most big matches, yet it only seemed to make this one stand out more.
With a lack of fans, reaction or distractions in the background whether sound or otherwise, everything we felt was conveyed in the ring & it felt like it hurt to see it almost as much as it must have heard to take on both men’s parts. The lack of atmosphere, the pitch silence at times (bar the commentary team) created an atmosphere of pitch-perfect tension, capturing the animosity of both WALTER & Ilja Dragnunov perfectly as they contested something that was less of a match, and more of a fight. Nothing about this was meant to be pretty or stylish, this was simply about two men wanting to kick the ever-living hell out of one another, which they accomplished in spades.
You could hear every blow manifest from both WALTER’s legendary chops to Ilja’s brutal uppercuts, you could see the welts build up on both men’s bodies as the contest stretched on & you could tell whether fake or not that the punishment these two were enduring wasn’t simply there for the sake of storytelling, the pain could be seen & heard quite openly. This kind of atmosphere wouldn’t likely exist with some kind of live audience present, at least not to the extent that it did here. Sure, an audience’s reaction would have been fascinating to see, but in all honesty the facial expressions & emotions of display of both WALTER & Ilja was mesmerizing storytelling. The two wisely played off the advantages of no audience being present, resorting to dialogue in their native tongue, emotion on all levels & displaying sheer agony to fill the void of any missing elements that may have been provided by an audience.
As for the in-ring action, to those familiar with the dynamic between the two competitors it was the brilliance you’ve seen before, but to any newcomers, you were in for a treat. In terms of pacing, the contest never wavered, even at its slower points. From the get-go this was an all-out fight, skipping over the prototypical rest holds, lock ups, taunting or shenanigans so many contests are marred with in most circumstances, which made this all the better as a result. While the standard WWE formula did play its role in terms of second winds this did a good job of straying away from that formula just enough to keep things fresh, which you can highly tribute to the creative offense on display as well as two genuinely unique personas clashing head on. A constant reliance on strikes, torturous chops, brutal kicks, unforgiving slams & a clothesline so vicious my jaw dropped to the floor made this a spectacle in violence, just not the kind you’d expect. Even something as similar as a headlock featured a spontaneous, monstrous slap from WALTER to the chest, never letting go of the narrative surrounding the imposing force that he is while never straying away from the physicality.
WALTER vs Ilja Dragunov is arguably the most outright violent match I’ve ever seen in my life as a professional wrestling fan, but not for the reasons you’d imagine.
Where this match shines are in its ability to convey violence through its storytelling & not rely on what’s made matches like the hardcore matches from ECW, Deathmatches in Japan/Mexico or the utter insanity of contests during the Attitude Era special (such as profuse amounts of blood), this used the very central characteristics of the characters as that violence. Each strike wasn’t simply a strike, it was a test on both men’s parts to test the limitations they’d built up over the course of this feud, a test of the will of the characters, not just a further addition to the already violent action but rather an example of how much the NXT UK Title represented to them. Presenting violence in this way doesn’t just make it impactful, it makes it personal, it garners stakes, which is why this match sucked me in the manner it did. Every moment built on the last, every strike meant something & the punishment both men went through was a testament to their dedication to tell the most effective story possible.
At the end, it was Dragunov that fell to the seemingly unstoppable NXT UK Champion after almost 30 minutes of carnage. However, the match didn’t indicate this being the final chapter in a feud with far more longevity, it kept the door open to what would hopefully be a second, even a series of encounters between WALTER & Dragunov. Ilja never directly submitted nor was he ever pinned like any other opponent before him, he was simply put to sleep at the call of a referee, giving the man a viable reason to contest a rematch with the reigning champion down the line or in the near future depending on where NXT UK heads in the next number of months.
I say this as a genuine fan & admirer of this match, this isn’t the last time these two men will meet in an NXT ring because there is so much more for them to bring to the table. From a booking standpoint, this is one of those rare matches I’d call virtually perfect in execution as it did what it was meant to while only leaving me wanting a rematch instantly.
So, when it comes down to this, where do I stand on this match?
Is it my 2020 Match of the Year? Is it as good as the hype dictated it would be? Is it the best match of either WALTER or Ilja Dragunov’s careers? Was it worth the 7 months wait? Does it set a new standard for the NXT UK brand?
To almost all of the above, yes, without a single doubt in my mind.
The only contention I would have is with this being the best match of WALTER’s NXT run, because there is so much quality to dig through. We could put this up against his epics with Pete Dunne or Tyler Bate, and where you come down on is simply due to your overall taste, but for myself its somewhat of a tie between all 3 as of right now. Each match brings something different to the table depending on your taste, so for now I’ll play the resident coward unwilling to make the hard decision & settle on this question as a tie. Although, time will make this decision for me.
As for everything else, it’s extremely hard not to find something to love in this match, regardless of your tastes. It’s a brilliant example of professional wrestling done to perfection, from the long-term character work put into both men, the brilliantly layered story behind the match, the sheer brutality of both men’s in-ring styles & the creativity in presenting a match like this without a live audience to play off of. It’s all the very best elements of the business on full display, most importantly shining the spotlight on long-term storytelling’s impact on big money matches which WWE sorely lacks. This wasn’t a box office draw, nor was it the kind of match that would outsell the biggest PPV’s, it was just a damn fine presentation all around that everyone should be proud of.
You could refer to this as a wrestling purists wet dream, because that’s exactly what it is.
WALTER vs Ilja Dragunov is a modern-day masterpiece in every way for me & undoubtedly the finest professional wrestling contest put up in 2020 so far, even topping the brilliance that was FTR vs The Young Bucks from AEW Full Gear from just days ago. More than just a match, this felt like a fight, and with some people constantly wanting to see more ‘realism’ out of professional wrestling I feel this could serve to cater to that niche demographic while also enhancing the story beyond just a wrestling match.
It’s the most masterful match I’ve seen in well over a year (since Cody vs Dustin Rhodes) & the most violent match I’ve witnessed that didn’t resort to the use of a stipulation or foreign objects. But most importantly, and the aspect that will define this match forever, is that this was unlike anything mainstream wrestling fans have likely ever seen. From the violence to the fighters literally venting their emotions to each other by talking between blows in passionate war cry’s, WWE has never presented something with an aura quite like WALTER vs Ilja Dragunov.
Regardless of which company you prefer, which style of wrestling you prefer or how aware you are of either of these men, it’s a spectacle you have to see to believe. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.
DeMarco: Early WWE WrestleMania 37 Predictions
WrestleMania is now set for the second weekend of April, and Greg DeMarco takes your all-too-early look at the potential card.
WWE WrestleMania 37 is now set for the second weekend of April, and Greg DeMarco takes your all-too-early look at the potential card.
During Saturday’s NFL pregame show on NBC, WWE announced the rumored change in location and date (dates) for WrestleMania 37. The event will take place in Tampa Bay on April 10 and April 11, both at Raymond James Stadium. they also revealed that WrestleMania 38 would be the event’s return in Dallas, and WrestleMania 39 would (finally) hit SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
If anything points to COVID sticking around well past its welcome and things taking longer than expected–despite a vaccine–to get back to “normal,” look at the fact that the Los Angeles WrestleMania got pushed back TWO YEARS just to be safe. Florida and Texas have been more liberal with the freedom to congregate and move around, making them easy choices for WWE in this case.
But right now I am focused on WrestleMania 37, taking place over two nights at Raymond James Stadium. Why two nights? Seating is sure to be limited and distanced, and WWE can sell more tickets over two nights while likely not paying double the rent. Regardless of how you feel about the handling of COVID then, now, and forever, this is the right move purely from a business perspective.
#WrestleMania 37 is about to get BUC-wild. 🏴☠️
— WWE (@WWE) January 17, 2021
So what’s going to happen in the top matches? See what I think and then comment with your own ideas!
WrestleMania 37 – Top Match Predictions
WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan has accumulated every accolade possible in WWE, save for one: Royal Rumble winner. I think that changes in 2021, and Bryan–who has said his in-ring career is winding down–is the perfect opponent for your (and my) Tribal Chief. Shinsuke Nakamura has an outside chance, but that’s recency bias on my part with his renewed babyface push.
As for the result? I love me some Daniel Bryan, but Roman’s reign (see what I did there?) has legs. I could honestly see him walking to Dallas still holding the Universal Championship.
Prediction: Roman Reigns defeats Daniel Bryan to retain the WWE Universal Championship at WrestleMania 37
WWE Champion Drew McIntyre vs. Keith Lee vs. Sheamus vs. AJ Styles
I know the reported argument for Goldberg challenging Drew McIntyre at the Royal Rumble is that “no one’s ready,” but as we proved with Shinsuke Nakamura over on Smackdown, it only takes a week. You can get anyone ready. I think we will see some sort of controversy at Elimination Chamber that leads us to this match. Drew vs. any one of these athletes would be (and has been) great, but a four-way is what is really jumping out at me. Keith Lee can have a memorable moment in the match, Sheamus is a Hall-Of-Famer-in-waiting, and AJ is simply one of the best in the world.
Look, Drew McIntyre is the guy, cemented as such at WrestleMania 36, but he’s 35 years old and in WWE lore the number of title reigns matters. So I think he drops the belt here, only to win it back soon after. But who wins it, then, Greg? Well that, to me, is Keith Lee. He made his pro debut only 4 years after Sheamus, but The Celtic Warrior has four world titles, a King Of The Ring, Royal Rumble, AND Money In The Bank all to his name. And AJ is AJ–he could win and be a great foil for Drew, and a WrestleMania moment would be great for him, but I think this is Keith Lee’s night (one or two, lol).
Prediction: Keith Lee captures the WWE Championship, but pins Sheamus to do it, at WrestleMania 37
Edge vs. Randy Orton in an I Quit Match
I am going with the rumored stipulation here, because it really does make sense. It’s a great gimmick that both men can really sink their teeth into, and Edge’s return will be yet another great moment. I hope he doesn’t return before this match honestly. Have him come back on Raw to set this up, but let this be his first match back in the company since the Greatest Wrestling Match Ever (where he lost to ol’ Randall Keith Orton).
Picking a winner is hard. Edge is a Hall Of Fame legend, and Randy is an active performer. But Randy is the best Randy we’ve seen in a long time, possibly ever, and he’s way more mature. I can easily see him wanting Edge to get the win here.
Prediction: Edge forces Randy Orton to say “I Quit” at WrestleMania 37
Raw Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss vs. Charlotte Flair
When Charlotte Flair returned at WWE TLC, I fully expected this to build to Charlotte vs. Asuka at WrestleMania 37, a main event worthy rematch from their WrestleMania 34 showdown where Asuka suffered her first WWE loss. But Alexa Bliss is figuratively and literally on fire right now, and I think it culminates in a WrestleMania match with the Queen herself. Hopefully Asuka has a tag team partner and can possibly do something else, because I really don’t want her to miss WrestleMania.
What happens here? #LOLCHARLOTTEWINS
Prediction: Charlotte Flair beats Alexa Bliss to win the Raw Women’s Championship
Smackdown Women’s Champion Sasha Banks vs. Bayley in a Falls Count Anywhere Match
I know we had a great blow-off for this feud at WWE Hell In A Cell, but these two deserve the WrestleMania stage. How we get there is simple: Bayley wins the Women’s Royal Rumble match. You know me, I wasn’t always the biggest Bayley fan, but in 2020 Bayley stepped her game up and deserves to add Royal Rumble winner to her resume.
I added the Falls Count Anywhere stipulation to give these women the chance to excel in a different way. They’ve wrestled each other so many times and are inseparably linked–but in a Falls Count Anywhere match in a football stadium they can really turn it up another notch.
To me, it’s still Sasha Banks’ time, and she can move on to a great feud with Bianca Belair after this one is over.
Prediction: Sasha Banks beats Bayley to retain the Smackdown Women’s Championship at WrestleMania 37
“The Fiend” Bray Wyatt vs. Jeff Hardy
With Randy Orton, Edge, and Drew McIntyre otherwise occupied, we need an opponent for The Fiend. Keith Lee could work here, but that messes up another prediction now doesn’t it? Instead we get crazy Jeff Hardy doing Crazy Jeff Hardy things, and this time it means an entertaining feud with The Fiend.
I don’t see The Fiend losing here, as Jeff Hardy doesn’t even really gain anything from a win.
Prediction: “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt beats Jeff Hardy at WrestleMania 37
Kevin Owens vs. Goldberg
While Goldberg dropped a challenge to Roman Reigns that might have really been him going off-script, it’s a match that doesn’t really make sense within current WWE storylines. Roman Reigns is the head of the table, and Goldberg just isn’t likeable enough.
Kevin Owens, on the other hand, is insanely likeable and has been doing his best Stone Cold for a while now. A match with Goldberg doesn’t really help Roman, but it could do wonders for Kevin Owens. Plus, they have history! Goldberg beat Kevin Owens for the Universal Championship at Fastlane in 2017 (thanks to “The Demo God” Chris Jericho, lol). That’s enough to build a feud on, as Owens wants to avenge that loss and Goldberg scoffs at the notion that he needed any help to beat Owens.
So we get Goldberg’s second WWE match of 2021 out of the way at WrestleMania 37, just like we did in 2020. And the year ends for him in the same manner as well–in a loss.
Prediction: Kevin Owens beats Goldberg at WrestleMania 37
NXT Champion Finn Balor vs. Karrion Kross
Finn Balor has already made the suggestion that we get him vs. Karrion Kross at the Showcase Of The Immortals, and honestly this match belongs on that stage. Kross is a main roster star through and through, totally misplaced on NXT. Balor is a great NXT Champion–he almost feels “too big” for the brand, but that in turn elevates the NXT altogether.
Kross doesn’t need to win the Royal Rumble to get this, it’s just easy for William Regal to go all William Regal and say, in his perfect British accent, “you’ll get your match…at WRESTLEMANIA!” and we’ll all be fine with it.
Kross belongs on the main roster, and should end up there after this match happens. He loses to The Demon, an iteration of Balor that has an amazing record in WWE, and then heads to Smackdown (or Raw) where he belongs.
Prediction: Finn Balor, as “The Demon,” beats Karrion Kross to retain the NXT Championship
So there you have it, eight top matches for WWE WrestleMania 37, which takes place from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay.
WAIT. Hold up–
This is a two night event, right? Let’s slot these matches into the two nights!
WrestleMania 37, Night 1
- WWE Champion Drew McIntyre vs. Keith Lee vs. Sheamus vs. AJ Styles
- Smackdown Women’s Champion Sasha Banks vs. Bayley in a Falls Count Anywhere Match
- Edge vs. Randy Orton in a Falls Count Anywhere Match
- Kevin Owens vs. Goldberg
WrestleMania 37, Night 2
- Universal Champion Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan
- Raw Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss vs. Charlotte Flair
- “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt vs. Jeff Hardy
- NXT Champion Finn Balor vs. Karrion Kross
Still plenty of opportunity on the card, including Big E defending his Intercontinental Championship, all three tag team championships, Bobby Lashley defending the United States Championship (although I could see all four members of The Hurt Business in an 8-man tag team match, possibly against Undisputed Era in another NXT crossover), a possible return for Braun Strowman, something of significance for Shinsuke Nakamura (him vs. Big E could kick all kinds of babyface vs. babyface ass), and more.
You’ll notice an absence of The Rock (too busy, and we need fans for him to really make a difference), Brock Lesnar (not too busy, but his spectacle is best experienced with fans), John Cena (although it’s entirely possible) and The Undertaker (he’s retired, dammit!). I think we’ll get legends in some capacity, but in the ring we have Goldberg and active legends like Randy Orton, Edge, and Roman Reigns (that’s right, I said it!).
What do you think? Drop your predictions in the comments below, at me on social media @ChairshotGreg, or discuss this in our Facebook group.
NXT Minus 6: Let’s Make History!
Bradley Jay makes history in this week’s edition of the NXT Minus 6. What kind of history is he making? Well, that’s for you to read and see!
Bradley Jay makes history in this week’s edition of the NXT Minus 6. What kind of history is he making? Well, that’s for you to read and see!
This will be the most historic column in the history of history!
6. Did you notice how many people want to make history? It’s all anybody talked about this week. I turned it into a drinking game. Every time someone said they wanted to make history, I took a shot. After 10 minutes, I died from alcohol poisoning. So much history.
5. Shotzi Blackheart will make history as the first person with green hair to win a Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament. Kayden Carter & Kacy Catanzaro will become the first tag team in history to win a DRTTC whose collective weight would qualify for 205 Live. Ember Moon will make history as the first person to leave NXT, return and win a tournament that didn’t exist the first time she was there. BTW, the tag team I want to see is Kayden Carter & Ember Moon.
4. Johnny Gargano and Austin Theory will make history as the first mentor/mentee team to win the DRTTC. KUSHIDA will make history as the first wrestler to win in all caps! MSK will make history as having the most God-awful name of any team to win. Unless it’s a shout out to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, then the name is doo doo on a stick.
3. Grizzled Young Veterans are sssssooooooon to make history as the first team to lose in the finals and win it the next year. Killian Dain by himself will be the hairiest team ever to win the DRTTC. Bollywood Boyz will make history as the first…I can’t finish that sentence. Those gomers aren’t winning Jack Squat.
2. Overall, it was a good start to the tournament. Every match was 3.5 stars. Nothing memorable, nothing horrible. Breezango versus Undisputed Era was the best of the bunch. It would have been better without the horribly overbooked end. I’m not sure the point of it all if Breezango couldn’t use it to pick up a victory.
1. “You look like a man who is questioning if he’s still got it.” It was a filler line, but that’s the story! I’m slightly excited for Tommaso Ciampa versus Timothy Thatcher, primarily because of the Fight Pit. Right now, it’s two tough guys wanting to beat each other up. I want to see Ciampa fighting to prove he’s still got it. I want to see Thatcher fighting to crush the soul of the locker room leader. That’s the story.
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